By Mark Nagi
Do you remember? I’m sure you remember.
In 2021, the Tennessee Volunteers baseball team went on a spectacular run that ended in Omaha. It was the Vols first trip to the College World Series in 16 years.
That was a team that had so much personality. Far too often we saw Tennessee take a back seat to their SEC rivals, but the baseball Vols took swagger to the extreme, challenging the conference elites. It mattered not that they weren’t on the same level as the Vandy’s of the baseball world. Tennessee was ready to jump into the fray at every opportunity.
Drew Gilbert’s game winning grand slam home run to beat Wright State in the NCAA Regionals is now on the short list in terms of the most memorable plays in Tennessee athletics history. That’s in the conversation with Peyton Manning’s touchdown pass to Joey Kent in the 1995 Alabama game, Tee Martin’s touchdown to Peerless Price in the 1998 BCS title game, Chris Lofton’s shot over Kevin Durant in the 2006 win over Texas and touchdown passes from Josh Dobbs to Jauan Jennings in the 2016 Florida and Georgia games.
I’ve absolutely left out a few. There’s only so much room in this newspaper.
Head coach Tony Vitello has transformed one of the worst baseball programs in the conference to an SEC and national title contender, despite subpar facilities and recruiting limitations.
Back on February 18, Tennessee kicked off the 2022 season and the fans showed up at Lindsey Nelson Stadium in droves. The Vols outscored Georgia State 33-3 in the series sweep but the real story was the turnstiles. Tennessee broke its previous attendance record for a three-game series with 13,566 tickets sold.
“We had our home crowd behind us, and it was the best weather of the weekend,” said Vitello after the series finale. “Those folks that came out on Friday… we expect to have good crowds out here as does our whole athletic department… but that wasn’t baseball weather on Friday night, that was (Green Bay) Packer weather and yet we packed the stands here and that was pretty cool.”
It’s a pretty good time for Tennessee athletics. The Women’s Swimming and Diving Team recently won its second SEC title in the past three years. The Men’s Tennis team finished second in the ITA Indoor Championships.
Tennessee’s men’s and women’s basketball teams are both ranked in the top twenty nationally and could make some news during March Madness. The football team will start spring practice soon, looking to keep the momentum from a surprising 2021 season going.
But it might be the baseball team that dominates much of the local sports landscape over the next few months.
There are lots of opportunities to catch the Vols in action, including weekday games which shouldn’t be as crowded. With stadium upgrades on the horizon, and Vitello’s much deserved raise and contract extension secured last summer, this program should be worthy of your attention this year, and in the years to come.
We missed you, Tennessee baseball.